Some Issues with Foreign Policy’s Sex Issue: Part Two (MMW Responds)

The recent Foreign Policy issue focused on sex drew a number of responses around the internet.  Earlier today, we posted a round-up of some of the other blog posts and articles that were written about the issue; here, Sharrae, Azra, Tasnim, Nicole and I discuss our many thoughts on the issue as a whole and on Mona Eltahawy’s article.

Sharrae: The introduction to Foreign Policy’s online version of their latest issue points out that the U.S. magazines that usually devote a special issue to sex are more often ones like Cosmopolitan – not a surprise. But I want to know, where did they get off devoting a major section of their issue to the portrayal of Muslim women? Was it a means of being controversial? Pushing the boundaries on the discussion on the consent of Muslim women? And by consent, of course, they mean a woman’s consent to dress! Mona Eltahawy’s article “Why Do They Hate Us?” focused specifically on the violence and oppression that women in the Middle East go through. In the same issue of the magazine, Iran-American Karim Sadjadpour also wrote an article on the fixation with sex by Aytollah Kohmeini, and Melanne Verveer discusses why women are a foreign policy issue, and thus celebrates U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for being an advocate for the advancement of women in the Middle East.

Foreign Policy

The niqab-bodypainted naked woman, pictured with Mona Eltahawy's FP article.

Krista: It took me several tries to get past the image attached to the article (as I mentioned in an earlier post, I think Naheed Mustafa captured the problems with the image pretty well), before I was even able to read what Mona Eltahawy was saying.  I was actually expecting worse, considering some of the responses I’d seen, so I appreciated seeing moments where Eltahawy acknowledged things like “women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them)” and “Clinton represents an administration that openly supports many of those misogynistic despots.”  And, well, the stuff she talks about is happening, and gender inequalities really are a problem, and shouldn’t be brushed aside.  (Yup, there’s still a “but” coming here.)


Azra: I finally had a chance to read the actual article, but think I’ve become so accustomed to Eltahawy’s schtick that it failed to register and strike a nerve with me this time around. I found it snappy to read and felt some of it to be effectively informative (like when she talks about state-sanctioned policies against women), but I strongly agree with many of the criticisms against it. Is it really any different than her past writing at the end of the day? People who love her past work love this, and people who have been critical of her past writing are critical of this.

Nicole: Mona Eltahawy does have a shtick: her self-appointed job is to be a provocative troll and she goes on various news and media outlets being a troll because, let’s face it, the mainstream media like provocative trollish people. That is why I initially didn’t see anything beyond her classic “I think I’m speaking truth to power but really I’m just giving the MSM what they want to hear” stuff with the “Why do They Hate Us?” article. Then suddenly, my facebook and twitter feeds were full of people completely up in arms.  Why were people so hateful and angry this time?

Sharrae: What I think is interesting is that all the writers of the “sex issue” agree that women’s bodies are the world’s battleground. And to be honest, I don’t disagree with that statement either. However, what I find remarkable is that the writers fail to realize the ways that they, themselves, end up waging war on the Muslim woman body. As they (particularly Sadjadpour) condemn Middle Eastern men for making women the symbol of purity in society, they are making Muslim women the symbols of oppression – and liberation. A woman who wears less equals liberation; a sign of a closed gap between men and women, and thus a higher GDP, as those supposedly cloaked under “suffocating cloth” are the symbols of the deep-seeded patriarchy of both Islam and those evil Muslim men. Authors such as Eltahawy or Sadjadpour seem to be caught between two sides. They want to speak to the various problems in their ancestral homeland, but they manage to feed and reproduce images of imperialist notions of those living in the Middle East. “Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend,” Eltahawy commands, after requesting that readers put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women.

Krista: Like many others, I was really turned off by the framing of the piece.  I’m not sure that “hatred” is really the issue; patriarchy and sexist violence in all societies are rooted in more than just men who hate women.  Moreover, “Why do they hate us?” was a rallying cry post-September 11, used to point to “them” as irrational and hateful, and “us” as the good ones.  While the “us” is different in Eltahawy’s piece, the “they” is largely the same: violent, irrational, hateful Muslim and/or Arab men.  So it’s not just that the title is inaccurate or melodramatic; it’s also very clearly part of the same rhetoric that has drummed up support for wars in the not-so-distant past.

Sharrae: On one hand, I completely understand the need for the truth to be told of how oppression is occurring in various places, yet on the other, I think we should be careful of falling into the pit of perpetuating hate against our (or other) communities. What I think Eltahawy and Sadjadpour fail to do, is provide a deeper context to why these issues exist. In my previous article, I spoke about the arguments of Dina Siddiqi, and the importance of straying away from explanations that tend to simplify politics in the Middle East as simply sensational, and tied up in religious fervour. It is pertinent to assess different contexts depending on the country and society that one discusses. The conflation of Muslim women in Saudi Arabia or Egypt or any other Muslim/Arab country is irresponsible, and glosses over the difference in experience that some women face in these countries. No discussion on class analysis is taken to describe how women from lower classes are more likely to experience patriarchal violence more so than the elite princesses of Saudi Arabia are pronounced.

Nicole: I saw a clip on CNN yesterday, where Mona Eltahawy went on record challenging two of the main criticisms directed at her. First, she denied that she speaks for Arab/Muslim/Brown women; secondly, she asserted that the revolution will not be won by women like her and that she is only a mouthpiece.  I find it very savvy of her to take these points head on for once in her career. But as is usual for her, any reasoned dissent or disagreement gets dismissed or brushed off. So I still found it weak sauce when, after the fact, she said that she doesn’t speak for anyone, Arab women speak for themselves, and she then proceeded to name drop all the people she “doesn’t” speak for.   She says that all she does it “amplify” the voices of women in the region. What she forgets is that she is where she is – a mainstream media darling – specifically because she DOES speak for people. And let’s face it: sometimes Mona is the only one on TV talking for an on behalf of Arab/Muslim/Brown people. All my respect for that.  But instead of using her power as a mouthpiece to write thoughtful, reasoned pieces that reflect the true feelings of women in the region (not speaking for them here, this is as evidenced by the number of counter pieces) or those of Muslim women (of which I am one), she took her voice too far in “Why do they hate us?”  Why? Because the article was remarkably simplistic and Orientalist in tone- it is something straight out of Bernard Lewis.  That’s not fair to us, but it is exactly what the mainstream media ordered.  This is why the revolution won’t be won by people like her, not because she only “amplifies their voices.”

Azra: At the end of the day, Foreign Policy’s reputation takes a huge hit. Foreign Policy’s editorial staff has a massive fail on the title of this piece, the title of an infographic linked to Mona’s piece (“Worst place to be a woman” that highlights the entire continent of Africa), Oriental fantasy photographs of black paint/oil-drenched naked women. It’s sensationalist rhetoric at its best that perpetuates stereotypic representations of Muslim women. It does little to contribute to constructive discussion of the horrendous, intricate social concerns that affect women on the ground in Middle Eastern countries and, really, everywhere. There is little emphasis on empowering women, or the empowered women who are on the ground working for change. Instead we get Mona speaking for everyone.

Tasnim: If Arab society is unmitigatingly misogynistic and in denial about its misogyny, any responses that take issue with the argument can only prove its point.

But this article has provoked more than disagreement; it has provoked a discussion, including many thoughtful responses. I was impressed by Leila Ahmed’s articulate words and Dima Khatib’s measured tone, while my initial frustration found relief in the sarcasm of the colonial feminist’s rebuttal. These responses prompted supporters to make the point that the article has suceeded in its goal: highlighting the issue.  Yes, they’ll say, it may have been sensationalist and simplistic, but it worked. You don’t have to work hard to hear “the end justifies the means.”

Nicole: As the American Paki blog says (my favourite of the “rebuttal pieces”), nobody expects Ms. Eltahawy to respond to every single criticism thrown at her.  But she seems to only feed on fangirls and fanboys or trolls who slander her.  I have yet to see Mona Eltahawy respond to any reasoned argument against what she writes with anything more than sidestepping  (as she did when she was asked on Twitter her feelings on the pictures of “Why do they Hate Us”) or vitriol (the despicable way she tweeted at Hebah Ahmed). This bothers me.  I can’t deny that Eltahawy has an important role in media discourse but far too often she uses her power, as what could be called a “native informer” as Ibn Kafka says, for herself rather than for the common good.  The MSM oversimplify issues affecting Islam and Muslims, and Eltahawy has given them yet again what they want- a simplistic, hateful piece with so-called insight into the minds of her Arab brothers- with “Why do they hate us.”  Finally, as Mona Kareem says, Eltahawy has been given “many chances” to speak. Why are her unique and definitely not consensus opinions consistently given priority as gospel?

Krista: I absolutely think it’s worth talking about some of the issues that Eltahawy brings up in her piece, and I agree with Tasnim that the piece has provoked some important discussions.  But I think it’s a lot more effective if we lose the language that links us to warmongers, and look more broadly at the roots of violence against women, rather than focusing on “hatred.”

Tasnim: Women’s rights in the Arab world is not an obscure or undiscussed issue. What came through in the responses, for the most part, was a rejection not of the facts but of the presentation, in particular the pathetically predictable images accompanying the article, which were not the writer’s decision.

At one point in Dima Khatib’s response (which I translated here) she asked: “In our Arab society, does the son hate his mother? The brother his sister? The father his daughter?” To borrow Virginia Woolf’s words, instead of asking what can be done to combat the way societies “sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male,” Eltahawy presents a one-dimensional, sterotypical picture of the monstrous male, the “they” who hate “us. “

  • Rochelle

    A few things the writers at MMW should read / watch: : commentary about the backlash following the hoodies-and-hijabs article on the Feminist Wire. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I find it appalling that any criticism of the niqab can be so virulently shut down and censored (with a “you’re racist” red herring) by a group of 77 academics who purportedly belief in the virtue of free debate and open speech. : Debate between El Tahawy and Leila Admed in which (contrary to Nicole’s misinformed claim) El Tahawy addresses many of the criticisms lodged at her. One of her countercritiques addressed the issue of Western women, nominally or practicising Muslim, who enjoy educational and financial prestige while at the same criticizing El Tahawy for her “privilege”.

    I didn’t like the FP piece. But I think the rebuttles are equally, if not more, crazy. Not only do most of them turn El Tahawy into a straw-woman and use ad hominem attacks (“trollish people”, really, Nicole? Is that necessary?) but they act like the FP article was about them. It wasn’t. Here’s a hint: If you went to Smith, you are not the subaltern. I find it incredible that El Tahawy can be charged with nativism and unduly speaking on behalf of others while her critics rely on the same exact logic for their claims. Take Ibn Kafka’s article for instance. How does she know that the niqab can be a source of empowerment? Cause she’s been to the Middle East! She’s talked to niqabi women! How does this give her anymore epistemological privilege than El Tahawy?

    • Krista

      Rochelle – thank you for both of those links. I hadn’t realised how blown-up the Feminist Wire thing had gotten (or that the posts had ended up being taken down).

      That Youtube clip is great – everyone, go watch it. It raises some good points, and it’s a good model for how these disagreements can happen in a respectful (and probably more productive) way.

  • Nicole

    Rochelle, I think calling her a troll is a lot nicer than what Mona dished out at Hebah Ahmed. Here’s a sample of only some of what she got from Ms. Eltahawy!/monaeltahawy/status/57876582202740736

    I also don’t understand how just going to the middle east and talking to woman in niqab makes someone an expert on niqab. But ok, if you want to call us out for not having gone to the middle east or knowing anyone in niqab, fine. Because that is what you appear to say in your last sentence. However, as a Muslim married to a French man, I personally and specifically do not appreciate Ms. Eltahawy, who has no connection to or experience in France whatsoever, going on television talking about the French niqab ban when she has no idea of the specific sociopolitical climate in that country and her intervention did more harm than good in an already charged atmosphere. This is the type of stuff that bothers people- one day it is France, one day it is Bahrain. As far as your critique of Ibn Kafka goes, this leads into my other conclusion of how any reasoned critique of Ms. Eltahawy is not addressed head on, as his was a balanced, nuanced and well-framed article, something Ms. Eltahawy’s writing style lacked in this particular piece.

    Kind regards

  • Rochelle


    We completely agree re: going to the middle east, talking to women in niqab. This does not make someone an expert. I was being sarcastic in my last sentence – apologies if that doesn’t come through.

    But it cuts both ways. If going to the ME fails to make someone an expert, neither does “married to a French man” give you expertise in that area. Likewise, El Tahawy’s lack of “connection” to France does not make her ineligible to speak about France (sorry for all the negatives in that sentence). This is nativism: “I’ve been there! I’m from there! I know!”. It doesn’t work.

    And if Eltahawy can’t speak for others, neither can anybody else.

    • Nicole

      If it is nativism then why are you saying it?
      I guess that means that you got why I went there…. :)

  • Michael Elwood

    Interesting analysis, ladies. Before I read the article by Mona, I hadn’t read anything in FP. After I read the article, I read some more articles (specifically the ones related to that article). And I have to agree with Sharrae. They do seem to try to exploit the whole Muslim sex thing. In addition to the article by Karim, there is another article on FP by Joshua Keating called Sex and the Single Mullah:

    It made me wonder, does Mona really believe the crude stereotypes in her article, or did she just throw that in because she thought that’s what the editors at FP wanted?

  • Samira

    @Rochelle I find it difficult to follow your arguments. You criticize those priviledged Muslim Women who think the article is about them b/c they don’t belong to the subaltern. Yet, Mona’s article disallows this type of nuance because of the binaries she sets up (us/them). In fact, I think that many of the best critique’s of Mona’s article call into question this lack of differentiation.

    I will agree that anyone has the right to speak about anything they like but I find your thoughts on nativism potentially dangerous (and a bit anti-intellectual). Here’s why: It does matter if you speak and understand a culture. It does matter if you possess the linguistic skills to interpret a text. It does matter how you approach (and your intimacy with the) subjects you wish to talk about particularly when issues of dehumanization come in play.

    And it especially matters if the laws in which you proclaim your support have a direct impact on your life, or are merely a way of abjectifying the other in order to promote your agenda.

    • Rochelle

      Hi Samira,

      We are in complete agreement actually. Regarding your last point, I do (absolutely!) think it matters if you speak and understand a culture, possess the linguistic skills, immerse yourself in the issue both intellectually and personally. I also think its incredibly important to have a STAKE in what you are talking about, which I think is what you’re getting at in your last point.

      And I’m not saying Eltahawy’s article was either 1) good, or 2) immune to critique. Indeed many of the criticisms have been right on point. But the problem that I find with this debate so far is that even when these types of criticisms (I’ll call it the subject-position critique) are lodged at El Tahawy – and rightly so – the critic rarely applies the same standards to herself. That’s why we get really odd scenarios in which Academics critique Mona for claiming to speak for all Muslims/Arabs and denying her privilege, while at the same time these Academics declare themselves in a better position to argue what is the “correct way” to speak for/about these women without taking into account their OWN privilege and subject position. Read El Tahawy’s article as well as the counterarguments and see how many times the author refers to him/herself “as a Muslim”. This banal claim to legitimacy not only ignores important subject-positions such as linguistic knowledge, cultural immersion, class etc, but serves as a weapon to label one’s opponent as as a sexist or Islamophobe. Both Eltahawy and many of her critiques are guilty of such a move.

      I’m going to copy what my friend Leila said on her facebook because I think she put it better than I ever will: After 33 years since Said’s Orientalism, if we are still talking about Muslim’s culture and we are still witnessing it being essentialized, then aren’t we back to the same place over again? It’s as if these discussions and debates are happening for the first time. Shouldn’t this now be the moment to ask ourselves why? Why can’t we move forward? Isn’t it partly because we mostly were reactionary as opposed to address the problems directly and clearly? Why do we label each other–calling those who disagree with us as “westernized,” “colonized,” and now “Islamophobic”? …I think this dilemma is paralyzing us in both academic and activist level. We’re wasting our energy in daily basis on “representation” rather than on what actually is happening on the ground. This discourse also dismissed the hard work of women’s activist who put their lives in jeopardy in those countries while seeing us as those who are sitting on their comfortable armchairs and fighting over being their “true” representative.

  • Samira

    I actually think that many of the academics who spoke out did so as an intervention, rather than as a way of distinguishing between what is “correct” or “incorrect.” Although, I definitely see your point in the unexamined privilege operating in the original article & the subsequent responses. Yet, I think that that we need to trouble the idea that there is this massive divide between armchair academics & the masses/real folks/activists.(Scholar/activists risk violence too! Intellectuals & poets are silenced through repressive regimes frequently & violently). I find your friend’s comments interesting. For me, representation, activism & theory are entangled & I am less troubled by the continued discussion. Although, Yes, some of it can be trite and self serving!

    • Rochelle

      The scholars, intellectuals, and poets that are silenced through repressive regimes are not the ones I’m talking about. They’re the ones in North America (and Europe to some extent). And I’m saying this as a PhD candidate at a T1 American institution, so its not like this is coming from complete ignorance of what academic feminism is like. It would be nice if (Western) academia and (nonwestern) activism were more mutually constitutive. And the good responses to Eltahawy were well balanced and informed by basic facts and concerns on the ground – see: Leila Ahmed

      But I’m an activist too, in a very different context. And unfortunately I’ve come to the realization that most of the academic “interventions” in this debate are really actually just self-serving aggrandizement that is mostly out of touch with the realities in places outside the US. We are so concerned with Islamophobia and the marginalization of Muslim/Arab/ME communities that we overcorrect and make equally empty, intellectually lazy, and self-righteous interventions, justified by our stake “as a muslim” and our strategic dropping of fad jargon like “agency” and “native informant.” As an intellectual, I’m offended by the poor logic and misinterpretations of key theories (poor Foucault is rolling over in his grave); as an activist I’m offended by the self-righteousness and betrayal of basic feminist commitments.

  • Samira

    Fellow PhD Candidate at a T1 university, activist/scholar here : )

    I still take (some) issue with your academics/non-western divide. Although, as I said above, privilege must be examined. (Unfortunately, I find Eltahawy to be the biggest offender here.)

    I think of folks like Mohja Kahf, who has risked her life (and her teenage daughter’s) helping Syrian refugees and fighting for the Syrian revolution. (The insidiousness of the Syrian regime to cross borders proves this point well, I think). I am aware that she (Kahf) would never group herself with those who have given their lives, and had their bodies violated, but I see her as worrying the lines we so often draw, as we don’t take seriously the meaning of those “hyphenated identities.”

    Yes, I appreciated Leila Ahmed’s response, too. I am not aware of the other academics you are referencing, so this is, perhaps, why I don’t have the same degree of frustration with the discourse surrounding the article.

    P.S. Good luck with your research. Positive energy sent your way!

  • Rochelle

    Positive energy send back atchya Samira. You made some excellent points that have forced me to (continue) thinking about stuff. That’s what a conducive and respectful debate is supposed to do and honestly our exchange has reminded me that such dialogues are still possible, even online :)

  • Samira

    Same here. I find your ideas compelling, particularly your questioning of the “As a Muslim/I’m a Muslim” stance.

    I’m going to reflect more seriously on *that* ideological/argumentative stance, now.


  • Hyde

    Mona bona is just another Uncle Tom who from looking outside, think she can fix problems inside…(though I agree with some of the analysis present here ladies…older ladies)